A Brief History of the Meetings

The idea for the INSAP meetings came out of a conversation between the late Ray White (University of Arizona), Fr. George Coyne, S. J. (then Director of the Specola Vaticana), and Rolf Sinclair (then at the US National Science Foundation), over coffee one morning in Tucson. As they discussed Isaac Asimov’s story “Nightfall” (whose theme is, “What would happen if the stars came out only one night in a thousand years?”), they realized that there were few if any concerted treatments of the effect of the many and variegated cultural impacts of the perceptions of the day- and night-time sky. Certainly there had never been a conference that would provide a mechanism for a broad sampling of artists, historians, philosophers, and scientists interested in just these cultural impacts to get together, compare notes, and to have the chance to ask those questions about each other’s work which may have been stewing away for decades. This lack cried for redress. The idea for the first INSAP was the result, and George Coyne arranged for it to be held at the Specola. Word got around, and the popularity of each meeting then led to the next one. They have been largely self-supporting, with significant subsidies from the host institutions and others.

Telescope of the Specola Vaticana, with a sculpture by John David Mooney ©.

The first INSAP conference (1994) was held mostly at the retreat house, “Mondo Migliore”, on the Rocca di Papa above the Lago Albano, and partly across the lake at the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo. (The former is in Italy, the latter is an outlying portion of the Vatican State, so the meeting was held in two countries.) The meeting was arranged on short notice, and many of the attendees were astronomers. We enjoyed tours of the Papal Gardens, and the Vatican Museum and Library. The enthusiastic response at the meeting showed that the idea was working.

Harbor of Valetta, Republic of Malta

In answer to the question often raised after INSAP I, “When will there be a second meeting?”, INSAP II was held in 1999 in the Republic of Malta. The rich history of the islands and their location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean made this an obvious choice. Note that the oldest megalithic structures with significant astronomical orientations are in Malta, dating from the fourth millennium BC and predating the British stone circles. A day was spent touring the megalithic temples and the Hypogeum. Thanks to better advance publicity, the attendees were more diverse.

Palazzo dei Normanni, Palermo Observatory, Palermo, Sicily, Italy

The third INSAP meeting was held in Sicily, partly in Palermo in the Palazzo dei Normanni and the Palazzo Steri, and mostly in nearby Mondello. It opened January 1, 2001, the two hundredth anniversary of the discovery at the Palermo Observatory of the first asteroid, named Ceres after the Roman patron goddess of Sicily. One day was spent visiting nearby sites of the Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Norman periods. By now word of the INSAP meetings had spread further, and the topics continued to broaden.

Magdalen College, Oxford, UK

Breaking with a seeming tradition of holding the INSAP meetings in the Mediterranean region, mainly on islands, the fourth meeting was held in 2003 in the UK in Oxford’s lovely Magdalen College, with some functions elsewhere in the Oxford Museums. By now the majority of the presentations were in the arts and the humanities. A special exhibit of works by several of the attending artists was held in the Oxford University Museum. A high point of the meeting was a special full-access dawn tour of Stonehenge and then Avebury — a day well spent among evidence of the partly astronomically-driven cultural complexity of early Britain.

Adler Planetarium, Chicago, Illinois, USA

INSAP V, the fifth meeting, was held at the Adler Planetarium in 2005, with its spectacular setting in Chicago on a peninsula in Lake Michigan. There were several new attendees, and the overall form of the meeting continued as before. Tours were arranged of the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute. By 2005, the web was being used as the main way to announce the meetings. In fact, word of INSAP seems to be diffusing through cyberspace with a life of its own – postings have been observed in places where it was not actually sent, and some unexpected and welcome enquiries are being received.

Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Venezia

INSAP VI returned to Italy in October 2009. The sixth meeting was organised by the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, Department of Astronomy, University of Padua and the INAF — Osservatorio di Astronomia di Padova Specola Vaticano. It was held at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti in Venice and was very well attended with about 130 participants from 20 countries. The event marked and celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope – and was also part of the IAU’s and UNESCO’s consequent declaration of 2009 as the ‘International Year of Astronomy.’ Some participants were able to visit the bell Tower of St Mark’s Basilica to see the place where Galileo first showed his telescope to a number of Venetian Patriarchs on 21 August 1609.

Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute

INSAP VII was held at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute in October 2010, supported by the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, Department of Archaeology, History and Anthropology, University of Wales, Lampeter. This was the second INSAP meeting to take place in the UK and the significant mythical and astronomical associations of Bath were highlighted during the conference. Much of the eighteenth-century city was designed (by architects John Wood the Elder and John Wood the Younger) in line with cosmological principles related to nearby stone circles and Druid influences. In addition, a visit and reception took place at Herschel House, the home of William and Caroline Herschel, very near to the conference venue. An excursion also took place to Wells Cathedral to view the astronomical clocks, Cathedral and Chapter house.

Hayden Planetarium, New York

INSAP VIII was held in July 2013, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, one of the world’s pre-eminent scientific and cultural institutions. Since its founding in 1869, the Museum has advanced its global mission to discover, interpret, and disseminate information about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe through a wide-ranging program of scientific research, education, and exhibition. In addition to the conference programme of keynote and other lectures, there was a tour of the ‘Hall of the Universe’ and the Hayden Planetarium at AMNH, including Fulldome Films & Performances in the Planetarium. A group visit took place to view the astronomically-inspired murals at Grand Central Station, and the striking sunset over ‘Manhattanhenge’ was also viewed by some participants.

Gresham College, London, UK, founded 1597

INSAP IX was held at Gresham College, London, 24-27 August, 2015, with support from Gresham College and the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture, School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Again, the attendees represented a range of regular INSAP attendees as well as a pleasing number of new faces but was slightly smaller having about 60 full participants. In contrast to the magnificent and highly modern AMNH, the conference was held in the small but amazing fifteenth-century Barnards Inn Hall, where Gresham College (founded 1597) is now located. The highlight of the conference was a special event with Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal, as keynote speaker, followed by a panel discussion involving no fewer than five former Gresham Professors of Astronomy. This event was open to the public as well as conference delegates and attended by some 300 people. (programme)

Centro de Estudios Avanzados, Casa de Europa, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela

INSAP X was held at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 18-22 September, 2017. The INSAP X conference was combined with meetings of the Société Européenne pour l’Astronomie dans la Culture (European Society for Astronomy in Culture – SEAC 25th), the Oxford XI conference, and the International Society for Archaeoastronomy in Culture (ISAAC). Entitled, ‘The Road to the Stars’ (due to the position of Santiago del Compostela at the end of the major European Pilgrimage Route), the combined conference attracted a large number of delegates, with about 120 papers, posters and presentations – including archaeoastronomy). INSAP presentations took place during part of the week, including an art exhibition at Fonseca College, informal popular talks at a local venue, and a wonderful excursion to Dombate, Galicia, to view the neolithic monument and burial ground and consider its astronomical implications.

Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California

INSAP XI was held at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) September 20-23, 2023, after a long delay due to the pandemic. Under perfect weather in beautiful Pasadena, the conference offered its usual fascinating range of papers and posters, a number of which were recorded and available on the host website [link]. It was punctuated by visits to the Griffith Observatory where we observed local noon on the Observatory’s meridian arc on the Autumnal equinox, as well as trips to the Carnegie, Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories.

The next INSAP is scheduled for Corfu, Greece, May 2024. To submit a proposal please go to the INSAP 2024 tab of this web site.

We are, of course, open to suggestions for locations and dates of future meetings.

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